The Journal of Provincial Thought
jptArchives Issue 18
lildiamond1-Iss18-ReadWriteluminancediamond2_18ReadWrite Pigasus- Cogito ergo nix iss18- c2007 Schafer-ReadWrite
“Go deconstruct something!” is the dumbass study assignment at the end of the universe..."
(OR, 40 YEARS BEFORE THE MAST) Scriblerus as waiter with wine, face unseen
Buttwinkle B. Scriblerus, Ph.D.
The Author...
“I hadn’t yet learned that education has very little to do with writing.”
—Artie Shaw

1.  Who Cares About the Wrath of Achilles?

Looking back over forty years of teaching in a small liberal arts college, teaching mostly English courses (literature and writing) and humanities/general studies interdisciplinary courses, I think the latter classes were the most useful and effective experiences of my career—for me and for my students.  I now doubt seriously the reality of “English” as a definable discipline or category of thought and learning.

            I believe approaching literature and writing as “content” courses is perverse and unworkable.  Neither literature, as academically sorted, nor writing embodies “content” in any useful sense.  Both are products of social and individual impulses enmeshed in the ecology of culture.  To make neat, artificial taxonomies for college catalogues is an anti-educational process.  It helps administration to label chunks of learning as “courses” assigned to individual teachers, but it is remote from any realities of teaching and learning processes of reading (literature) and writing.

            That is, in the “real world” (i.e., outside formal education), people don’t pick up a book and read it, thinking This is a novel by Charles Dickens, who was a social satirist from the middle of the nineteenth century and who influenced the shape and direction of the English novel by. . .   Rather, they read because they are drawn into Bleak House or Great Expectations and are entranced by the story, characters, language, etc.  And they may even read it with high critical and historical appreciation without a be-robed don at their elbow nudging them with footnotes and addenda.  Neither do people sit down with paper or a word processor and write because someone has made a boilerplate assignment, with specifications and deadline.  They write because something urgent inside them says, Write or explode!  So they begin, Call me Ishmael, and go on to I alone am escaped to tell thee.

            University education in the humanities long ago abandoned such common-sense ideas of education.  Graduate education in English literature by the 1970s was hijacked by deluded acolytes of deconstructionism and associated other -isms, minor, long outdated bypaths of French philosophy (those merry pranksters Derrida and de Man seeded Yale in the late 1960s, so that poststructuralist guff has been curdling steadily for thirty-odd years, longer than the reign of New Criticism).  Graduate students tell me they are ignored and treated as expendable kamikaze recruits in dead culture wars, left to educate themselves in the library stacks (maybe a mercy!).  It is take-it-or-leave-it time, and graduate professors know they don’t really need to teach, just grind out publications and conference papers at the acceptable rate for commensurate promotion and pay raises.

            A world of topics exists out there about miseducation and the miserable state of universities, but I want to express a few ideas I never had the opportunity or courage or wit to try while I taught.  They require rethinking academic priorities, aims and processes, so they are doomed in most institutions and among most faculties, who sleep the long sleep of job security, intellectual certitude and the innate drive of teachers to erect and defend an intellectual position that is safe, comfortable and nonthreatening.  The latest version of that is the nihilistic relativism of deconstruction and its allies, in which all points of view are acceptable and defensible, therefore safe.  “Go deconstruct something!” is the dumbass study assignment at the end of the universe.  All answers are correct, any method is acceptable (“Don’t bother to show your work”) and no need for discussion or response.  Everybody gets an A+!   If we reject this, we can then jettison Eurotrash terms like “privileging,” “differance,” “valorizing,” “semiology” and their ilk and use English to talk about English.

            However, I worry about standard approaches in literature courses, an issue more important than shooting the wounded duck of post-structuralism and interest-group teaching (i.e., Women’s Studies, Black Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Jewish Studies, Hispanic Studies, etc., the neosegregationist Otherism that balkanized and ultimately scuttled the New Left forty years ago).  I am not thinking about conventional course organization, either, of canned anthology-driven study (however good a book the Norton Anthology may be).

            For instance, we teach English “period” courses as if chronology were significant, real and not an abstract labeling system, thus making students believe that knowing dates or orders is a basic way to understand and assimilate what they read.  I taught a conventional eighteenth-century course through my forty-year career—a collection of heterogeneous writings from 1660-1789 or so, not a century, not “eighteenth” and not clear to my students, who had no idea why 1660 or 1789 could be important dates.  I tried to invent other exciting “hooks”—defining everything via key words or phrases like the Age of Reason, the Augustan Age, Neoclassicism—and to do primitive history of ideas reading.

            We should remember L.P. Hartley’s epigram, “The past is a foreign country—they do things differently there,” and admit that past cultures are inherently weird and strange, alien to us.  Eighteenth-century ladies and gents are not the cast of a Reality TV escapade, divas and jocks in fancy dress.  They lived in a universe with totally different physical laws and basic modes of thought and feeling.  They faced death, disease and pain in ways we can’t imagine.  Their world was materially barren and primitive, compared even to third world enclaves today.  They would regard us—as we often think of them—as brutes and barbarians guilty of genocide, infanticide and blasphemy against God and life.  (Read the speech by the King of Brobdingnag to Gulliver and blush for yourself.)

            But the limitation of the semester system and the idea of anthology-sized chunks of reading (in 1920s Oxford they used the vivid, disgusting term “gobbets”) defeated common sense.  I  knew what I was talking about, but students neither knew nor gave a damn.  This was segregationism of the text—what everyone wanted a decade ago to discuss as “The Canon” because it was a nifty, exotic word.  But my problems couldn’t be remedied by requiring students to read whole, unedited texts (a good notion).  It wasn’t the size of the readings, it was defining their significance in some universe of knowledge contiguous to a student’s mind and sensibility.

            Students said it fairly clearly:  “Why do we have to read/know this old stuff?” “What good is reading Pope/Swift/Johnson/Defoe to me?” “This stuff is boring/incomprehensible/irrelevant/meaningless.”  These are not bad questions and comments, but they are hard to answer inside academia, short of “Because I said to read them” or “Because everybody for hundreds of years has read them.”  Those are grade school evasions beneath adults embarking on lifetime learning.  So I cheerily averred that I read them because I loved them, because they were emotionally and intellectually rich, they expanded my mind and made me find “relevance” in all I read.  That was near an unvarnished truth—I am an inveterate, indiscriminate and indefatigable reader.  But how to make any student into the same?

            I have few ideas on how to communicate enthusiasm except by being enthusiastic and hoping your charisma or telepathic abilities inspire it in others, as Falstaff was not only humorous but the cause of humor in others.  I do know that ordinary teaching of ordinary courses cut up by the ordinary academic pie-slicer doesn’t do the trick.  I have murky ideas now how I might have taught readings from the era assigned me, given world enough, energy enough and time.

            I think the only way to discover what the “eighteenth century” was about when it existed is tortuous.  Readers really need the goofy classical education available then—that is, reading Latin in a fairly narrow way to memorize a compendium of moral, esthetic and social “advice.”  The readers Pope and Swift and Johnson wrote for knew Horace by the yard, bits of Ovid, snippets of Seneca and Cicero, the highlighted bits (“epigrams”) of Virgil and little else.  But they really, really knew that.  It was embedded by the cane and the ruler into their hides by schoolmasters, and it was semi-useless knowledge.  They could instantly fill in the blanks when someone said nil admirari— or ubi sunt— or sunt lacrimae rerum.  It was as if today’s students had been forced by years of corporal punishment to memorize, write, imitate and recite most of the Bible, bits of Blackstone, endless verses from somebody like Tennyson and paragraphs of Matthew Arnold.  What then would twenty-first century writing and literature look like?

            (A wonderful 1950s science fiction story by Theodore Cogswell called “The Specter General,” posits a remote planet on which marooned descendants of rebels in a colonial galactic war have educated their children from all the old technical manuals and military specifications left by their ancestors.  The children grow up for generations knowing everything about the maintenance, operation and care of a set of complex technologies they have never even seen, so their education seems mystical and religious, rituals abstracted from their fairly low-level cultural reality.  They read and memorize how to repair and maintain atomic space-drive engines while they plow their fields with bullocks and iron plowshares.  Eventually they are found by modern galactic travelers and Clarke’s Law is demonstrated—“Any technology sufficiently advanced will appear to be magic.”)

            So, any past literature, sufficiently complex, on first encounter seems incomprehensible and unapproachable.  I believe the only way to get students to understand and feel eighteenth century writers, short of four-five years’ Latin drill in the old manner, would be to read Pope’s Odyssey and Iliad as starting points.  Pope wrote them as primers to the new language and thought of neoclassicism for English readers not well drilled and spanked into a grasp of Horace, Ovid and French avatars like Boileau or Racine and for those who knew little of classical Greek literature (including Pope himself).  Pope’s “translations” are in fact transformations or what Dryden sometimes more accurately called paraphrases, literary works that turn Homer’s bloodthirsty bronze-age brutes and psychotic gods and goddesses into courtly gentlemen and ladies as precious and impeccably elegant as the miniaturized caricatures in “The Rape of the Lock.”

            Pope was creating a socio-cultural handbook in those two classical works for literate middle-class readers, to show them what to think about and how to think it, if they wanted to join the eternal parade of great reading and genteel culture—“manners” and literary-esthetic taste were integral.  They didn’t have to know much Latin (and no Greek—Greek classicism was a Victorian obsession with another agenda), if they subscribed to Mr. Pope’s sumptuous new metamorphosis of the oldest important stories (beyond the Bible) of Western Europe (that is, the known civilized world and bailiwick of Everybody Who Mattered). 

            I did get as far as teaching my students how to enter a room and properly salute people (to bow or curtsey—to “make a leg” in parlance of the time), talked about dress and its meaning (men had to have “good legs” and women “good busts”), social and civic conditions, the wretched state of medicine or any practical science.  I hadn’t world enough and time to teach them to dance the minuet or sing catches and glees, rudimentary fencing, wig wearing and maintenance (including dealing with fleas and lice) and the galaxy of other personal-social stuff that might make the period vaguely human.  But I think now that Pope’s Homer is where to start, and we might get to an interesting idea before the limitations of semesters thrust us through the iron gates of life.

            Likewise, though I never taught nineteenth century lit., I suspect the only “real’ way to understand the years from—what, Waterloo to Spion Kop?  Victoria’s accession-to-death?—is to start with Ruskin and read as much of his vast works as can be humanly borne.  John Ruskin was right behind the Bible as most read in the time, a comprehensive mind at once extraordinarily idiosyncratic and individualistic and “universal” (like Pope), influential on intellectuals, the working class, the religious, esthetes, atheists.  He had something moral to say on every esthetic topic and something esthetic to demonstrate about every moral debate.  Because we do not read Ruskin now, we don’t come close to understanding the minds and hearts of nineteenth-century people.  (We also gruesomely misrepresent American lit. by omitting Irving, Longfellow, Holmes and Whittier because they seem like old fogies by comparison with premature modernists like Poe, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman and Dickinson.)

            Examples like these could be multiplied, and it is not just “canon fodder.”  We need to abandon neosegregationist “inclusions”—i.e., inserting random works by women, people of color, gays and lesbians, etc., to demonstrate that such people existed and wrote in the past.  The sentence I just wrote is all that needs to be said to remind normally intelligent people of this historico-demographic reality.  Anyone wanting further information can go to the library or go Online for a surfeit of works to supplement main readings.  “Inclusion” has meant replacement, and to read Aphra Behn without knowing Daniel Defoe is both confusing and diminishing:  Oroonoko is a brilliant mirror to shine on Robinson Crusoe.  (I would still get to both Behn and Defoe via Pope—it’s easily done when you define Homeric warriors as carefully polished “noble savages.”)

            All my meditations, however, are utopian, given the dismal state of academia, its limpet-like grip on traditional units of courses, periods, genres and terms, its need to cut knowledge into bite-sized chunks, its self-serving simplemindedness in forgetting why and how people read books or otherwise seek truth.  And the habit of reading itself is attenuating quickly, replaced by an audiovisual culture of quick fixes, fads and prefab knowledge (see the Internet, the ultimate instant-reductionism machine), or hip-hop chiclets of prose and doggerel.

            If I had it all to do over again, however, I would do it all over again—that is, mistakes are chronic, and it is easier to succumb to sloth, inertia and habit than to go forth each day for the millionth time to forge the uncreated conscience of my race.  Ain’t that the truth?

"The average car mechanic or Seven-Eleven clerk leads a life of higher moral, intellectual and social adventure than the average assistant professor."

2.      How to Write in X + Y = Z Easy Lessons

Before I went to college, I thought about “being a writer,” and I had a vague idea how it worked—you found a matchbook or a tiny ad at the back of Popular Mechanics headlined “Be a Writer and Earn Big Bucks at Home.”  You filled out the form and mailed it (about six cents at the time, I think) and got brochures from Famous Authors of America or Writers’ Collective or whatever organization.  The verbal equivalent of the “Draw Me” matchbooks silhouettes for would-be Painters Earning Big Bucks at Home.

            This seemed a reasonable way for the world to work.  But it was childish naïveté.  In a few years such harmless skin games would be replaced by a much bigger one—the cooption by academia of “writing” as a literary industry.

            Before the 1950s and ’60s, when universities exploded in size and in the wake of WW II and the G.I. Bill, the occasional writer was hired by the occasional institution as an adornment or figurehead or to fulfill conditions of some cranky endowment—Red Warren chaired the English Department at Minnesota, Ford Madox Ford ended his career in rustication on the Calvin College campus (Ovid among the Scythians) and a few others were sprinkled about big and little campuses, notably Kenyon College and the University of Iowa (and Yale—for Prof. Baker’s old drama-writing workshop).  But most “writers” made their own ways—i.e., by writing and getting paid for it, as journalism, as popular entertainment, even as literary art.

            Writers and academics inhabited contiguous but separate universes.  Academic novels were rare and inaccurate.  (This does not apply to Britain, with a long tradition of scribblers in gowns—after all, they did not have to teach or do other academic heavy lifting, and what else was there to do in an Oxbridge winter?)  Writers nourished a healthy skepticism (or contempt) for academe and scholarly opinion and language.  Academics inflicted only marginal damage on the writing being created around them, earwigs inhabiting an old folio.

            But the new university expansionism, with its goal of universal higher education (why?) and the ability to metastasize campuses at lightspeed across the physical and intellectual body of America, changed everything in a country of writers.  Universities offered steady salaries, sinecures (the goofy tenure system is any con man’s seventh heaven), housing, work of laughable simplicity, captive audiences for conversation and socio-sexual predating, cultural centers equipped with one of everything—art gallery, string quartet, drama group, radio station, etc.  Writers once struggled with deadlines, the uncertainties of editors, readers, reviewers, bills to pay, wolfish creditors, no benefits, no paychecks, no office or secretary, no on-the-spot adulation by a captive audience of adolescents too callow to withhold praise and adulation for a Real Author of Real Books.

            No need now for the bottle of rye in the desk drawer, McCawberish skills at fending off creditors, the practiced wheedling before agents and editors and influential reviewers, repeated trips to divorce court.  The bugle-call of the new universities was an emancipation proclamation for writers working into middle age and seeing nothing on the horizon but dwindling expectations. 

            The process was slow, and some writers bridged academic and writing lives with minimal self-damage—Mark Harris, Wright Morris, Ralph Ellison, Wallace Stegner and some handful of a “first generation” of the new “writer-in-residence” scam were case-hardened professionals and tortoise-shelled individualists already and survived the corrosive seductions of academe.  Others became casualties—Randall Jarrell, John Berryman and John Gardner notably—or just collapsed into sensual reverie in the Land of the Lotus Eaters.  But this was only Act One, the minatory appearance of Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost, not the final bloody slaughter (“the sight is dismal”) to follow in a generation.

            As writing programs of every sort proliferated, and the idea of hiring “working writers” as academic fodder was accepted as a necessity, not a luxury, an insidious feedback mechanism mutated into invulnerable symbiotic tissue.  Writers now expected or sought subsidy from academe (“After all, in democratic America we have no system of aristocratic patronage to help us!”), and academia demonstrated with surgical finesse Paul Samuelson’s edict about the Free Lunch.  Writers not only had to sing for their suppers by giving public readings and seminars for senior citizens, serving on juries of writing competitions, endorsing academic causes and generally posing as mobile heroic statuary, but they were infected with the pernicious and pervasive Lilliputianism of the academy.

            Lacking experience beyond the convent walls, on-campus writers wrote of convent life—academic stories, “satires” (who says?), minutely detailed exposes of petty academic quarrels and follies, boring by definition.  Writers with wonderful knowledge of life in interesting places, doing interesting things, suddenly became classroom cranks who yearned to impress sexually available students, to pay back snotty colleagues, to express rage and frustration over life while they lived as neutered sheep on the carefully trimmed pastures of academia.

            The response of readers has been interesting.  Since college grads are among the few who still read any books, stories and poems and plays about academia or from a scholastic viewpoint were familiar and accessible to recent alumnae.  But the basic story of academia—heady and addictive to those inside the convent—is simple, quotidian and non-dramatic.  The average car mechanic or Seven-Eleven clerk leads a life of higher moral, intellectual and social adventure than the average assistant professor.  Literature became bathetic—recapitulating the Art of Sinking in Prose was the only achievement of university writing programs, for teachers and students alike.

            Because the center of literature moved from New York and the publishing-journalism nexus existing there for a century to scattered campuses, departments and programs through the Big Ten, the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters and every other academic fungus, publishing changed character.  It was no longer a capitalist attempt at art but only a minor sub-department of multinational industry, and old publishing houses were traded as bargaining chips in the great Money Game, old-time editors died or retired and nobody minded the store.  By default, writing programs became the bush leagues for future writers.  Critical editing and even copy editing became extinct.

            Both the content and the manner of writing became increasingly conformist and stylized.  No one wrote eccentrically, out of conviction, fashioning a style and a point of view as idiosyncratic and politically incorrect as a cigar store Indian—so we had no more Whitmans and Thoreaus and Dickinsons and Marianne Moores and K.A. Porters and Caroline Gordons and William Faulkners.  Those writers would have flunked out of Writing 101 or would have buckled under the pressure and produced the assembly-line language demanded by the academy and (now) by presses, the end product of the writing program skin game.

            It is pathetic to imagine that writers never got ahead by contacts, back-scratching and favors and all the rituals of any guild (see Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” almost 300 years old), but at least they used to go through a demonstrable apprenticeship of garret-bound scribbling or journalism or other paid work that admitted them to a circle of working writers (H.L. Mencken’s memoirs detail all this superbly).  Now they are ensigned as X’s prize student, or a grad of Y program at Siwash U., or earmarked by style and obsessions as a slavish follower of Z.  You can spot their academic credentialing, like wig-wag telegraphy, at a thousand yards—the tics and themes and trends imbedded in their work are tattoos before the skin around them ages.  Because the process has been ongoing for 40+ years, we now even have films and TV dramas that make campus writers and writing program their mise en scene, that feature the haunted one-book writer chained to an inkstained desk, smoking pot and yearning for the freedom of his or her student years.  Another worthless charm on the great big Phi Beta Kappa keychain.

            A more able observer than I, Nick Tosches (our nearest thing to a “man of letters” in these evil days), put it plainly in reviewing Raymond Carver’s collected poems.  Carver was a perfect exemplar of Scriblerus Scholasticus, the sheltered writer who steadily shrank from miniature to microbe, and Tosches seized on one line from a Carver poem to illustrate the idea—“I spent years, off and on, in academe.”  Tosches says, “He was, ultimately, a writer of academe:  too cerebral for his own good and possessed of a solipsism that led him to think that waking to the sound of a radio was an experience worth expressing . . . . The problem, in the end, is not that this is not poetry.  The problem is that it is not much of anything else, either.”

            I rage at this desiccation of literature not because writers have damaged academe but because academe has heedlessly corrupted the process of writing in our culture.  In Elizabeth I’s golden days, a debate erupted between academics and “secular” writers, sometimes called the argument over inkhornisms—working writers believed scholastic language larded with foreign terms (especially Latinisms) was creating a corrupt or macronic version of the sturdy Anglo-Norman demotic.  Fusty scholars replied with close-range fusillades of obfuscating polysyllables.  This was a tempest in an inkpot compared to our era’s wholesale academic cooption and subversion of literature and its fonts in human thought and imagination.

            I only daydream idly—maybe the Internet will save us!  Maybe God will appear in clouds of glory and boom out an injunction against anyone ever, anywhere setting up as a writing guru, wizard, coach, teacher or mentor.  Let writers learn by writing, as they always have and will, if any distinguishable writing is to survive the millennium.  The school of hard knocks was a working institution of long standing and inherent modesty and self-control, compared to the solipsistic, self-serving and vain works of academe.  Writers need to write because they can’t bear not to write, not because they want another page on their C.V. or a ticket to ride the idler’s gravy train or because they want to star in cool TV programs—reality shows even!—about the high adventure of the writer’s life. 

            Hi diddle-dee-dee, a writer’s life for me! and off to the happy isle of bad boys.  Just remember—they bye-and-bye metamorphose into donkeys!

"...many colleagues were candid and correct in their self-assessments:  they didn’t read very well, were semi-inarticulate in speech and couldn’t write for sour apples.  And I’m talking about the English teachers!" 

3. Here Comes Everybody!

Interdisciplinary teaching suited me down to the ground, because these courses were intense learning experiences for me.  I was not an “expert” or even an “authority” in the classroom but an active learner who happened to lead a research group of students.  I taught courses that surveyed several arts at once—e.g., literature and visual art(s), literature and film, literature and music—and other courses that melded literary and more abstract topics—e.g., a senior religion requirement on the impact of science and technology on belief (using literary texts as well as history and philosophy of science/technology readings).  I taught a modern world history course, drawing on novels, plays and stories to illuminate large historical ideas and themes.

            These interdisciplinary courses were provisional and impromptu, and I taught by letting (or nudging) students into reporting and leading discussions.  They did research and wrote short speculative “position papers” as we went along.  The classes were populated by non-majors—that is, by students from every department and discipline—and it excited them to hear (say) a political science major talk about a Thomas Pynchon story or a math major construe a Shakespeare play.  It excited me, too!

            To teach this way, I had to organize team-teaching, find student assistants who were capable and useful and, most important, find the gumption and trust to walk into the classroom and make mistakes—to be wrong or ignorant and admit it all before nineteen- or twenty-year-olds with good, skeptical minds and carefully tuned built-in bullshit detectors.  It was usefully tonic to realize that each class meeting might be a booby trap, and I was the booby to fall into it.

            A former colleague (now a university president, God help us!) confessed he could not teach those courses, because he had to know everything about any subject he taught and be wholly prepared to answer cogently any question that might ever, ever come up in class.  He felt he could do that with narrow literature courses and could not possibly do it in an open-ended and nebulous interdisciplinary course.  The beauty of generalist teaching is that it weeds out such psychotic, anal-retentive instructors—the tension is too high, the prospects of failure too immediate.

            I got used to saying “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ll bet together we can invent a process for finding out.”  Was this a cop-out, an evasion, a dereliction of duty?  I don’t know (or care), but it was a thoroughly practical approach that energized students, and many spontaneously told me so.  Every so often an especially up-tight student complained that I didn’t seem to be a helpful “expert,” but this led to an instructive sidebar on expertise, knowledge and authority.

            Faculty, of course, were much more frightened and oppressed by interdisciplinary courses, whining that they “didn’t know enough” or that “there was too much to teach” or that they had “never been trained to do this” (envision seals balancing balls on their noses in exchange for haddock).  The level of pusillanimous whining in general studies staff meetings was stratospheric, repetitive and boring, but from experience and self-confidence, a few good teachers emerged.  I often felt unbalanced, uncertain about where we were going and why, but I much preferred that to the death-like certainty of repeating same-old, same-old English classes year in and out, squinting at sheaves of yellowed notes from yesteryear, riffling through anthologies bleeding with once-cogent notations and underlinings.  Better die as an eagle-eyed wire-walker than live as a nearsighted clown!

            Interdisciplinary teaching at my college meant “reading and writing across the curriculum,” too.  We drop-kicked the canned freshman English program into the memory hole and tried to teach reading, writing, listening and discussing/speaking in all core courses.  This brought out the paranoid self-loathing of most faculty, who howled that (again) they hadn’t been trained to teaching composition, knew nothing of grammar and had no clue how to recognize good writing if they saw it.  We on board the interdisciplinary train pointed out that such confessions were (or ought to be) reason for dismissal of any college teacher on grounds of incompetence or idiocy.  Basic literacy has to be the prime requisite of anyone teaching in a college or university, a sine qua non.

            However, in our “real world” of academe, this is more honored in the breach than the observance—many colleagues were candid and correct in their self-assessments:  they didn’t read very well, were semi-inarticulate in speech and couldn’t write for sour apples.  And I’m talking about the English teachers!  The others represented another undeveloped species—Neanderthal person, maybe.

            It was an interesting thirty-year struggle to get faculty to grasp and implement goals of the courses, to keep courses functional as teachers shifted in and out, as battle fatigue eroded teachers desperate to get back to their “specialties” and do “significant” teaching/research and all other academic eyewash that signified loss of self-confidence and the abrasions of really hard work, the first heavy lifting most of these teachers had done.  Anyone who had worked in English composition or remedial English rice paddies knew what real academic stoop labor was, but these faded lilies from social science or philosophy or arts departments had no notion of a vast paper-grading schedule or the sheer hours-per-student contact needed to reach basic college student needs in the last half of the twentieth century.  Poor academic-kind cannot bear much reality.

            The sum of these lucubrations?

            A few ideas—writing must be taught as a useful, joyful activity, a way students can find out what they want to say and how to say it simply and directly:  “How do I know what I mean until I see what I say?”  Writing must be self-initiated and self-stoked to be worth reading.  It must not be guided by purely external forces and needs (I want to “be a writer,” “be famous,” “be admired,” “be somebody”) but developed as a disciplined handicraft.  Teachers need to stay out of the way but to edit and correct ruthlessly when necessary (you must know intuitively how and when with each student, and if you don’t, hang up your mortarboard, because no one can train you to be sensitive to others and intuitive about personalities and needs).

            Don’t spend time worrying about students’ overwhelming self-referential (self-centered) beginnings.  Their electro-solipsistic culture is Ptolemaic again—the universe revolves around me!  But wean them from this collective delusion as they pile up pages:  the act of writing immediately implies a reader.  There is someone else in the cosmos!  Make them absorb the idea that readers complete the writing equation, that 1 + 1 = 2, not 1 = 1.

            Reject passive voice and use imperative mode when you can, rely on verbs and nouns and eschew obfuscation, circumvent sesquipedalianism, don’t write upside down phrases (“not un-“) or use indistinct, hoity-toity pronouns like “one” or ugly ways of avoiding supposedly “sexist” language (“they” and “their”). 

            Re-read Strunk & White periodically. 

            Re-read Shakespeare and the old Bible constantly. 

            There’s not much else to do, but lots to avoid—handbooks and guidebooks to teaching, curriculum theorists, academic administrators who fled the trenches for R & R in old Blighty, rabid neosegregationists who aim to seduce you into special-interest positions and closed-access sub-departments (Dull People Studies, The Department of the Bald).  (If you’re not sure, look for the cloven hoof.) 

            Any questions?  Good, you’re on your own, and very best of luck!  And always remember, our word “dunce” comes from an academic nickname—Duns Scotus, the great hairsplitting medieval schoolman!  ###

jptARCHIVE Issue 18
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